May 24, 2017 - From the May, 2017 issue

Ford Amphitheater Renovation & Expansion Opens to Public in July

The John Anson Ford Theatres complex is an intimate jewel of a theater nestled in the Hollywood Hills. Owned by Los Angeles County, it has long been one of LA’s best kept secrets. With the successful renovation and expansion project undertaken by a team led by Brenda Levin (pictured) of Levin & Associates Architects, the Ford re-opens in July as a state of the art performance venue and cultural meeting place. In this exclusive interview with TPR, Levin joins Ford’s interim executive director Olga Garay-English, former head of cultural affairs for the City of Los Angeles, to share how the thoughtful renovation has re-conceived the once quiet theater into world-class standards. Levin & Associates was also the recipient of Project Restore's illustrious 2017 Los Angeles Architectural Angel Award on June 8th. You can view the video here.


Brenda Levin

“When you’re at the Ford Theatres, you feel like you are in a park—and indeed the Ford is part of a 32-acre park—and because you are seated deep in a canyon, the experience is more pronounced than you would imagine was possible in the heart of Hollywood.” -Brenda Levin, Levin & Associates

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl has described the Ford Amphitheatre as “the best kept secret in Los Angeles County.” Do you think that after the theater’s renovation and expansion, the Ford will—when it reopens in July—cease to be a secret venue for public performances? 

Olga Garay-English: Absolutely; that is our No. 1 goal. Supervisor Kuehl asked me to be the theater’s interim executive director in order to bring about the kind of visibility that the Ford has historically been a little bit shy of.

The Ford has been a sleepy, LA-focused venue. Now, with the world-class makeover that Brenda Levin and Mia Lehrer and their teams have accomplished, it is state-of-the-art. We want the kind of programming we do to match the architectural elegance that Brenda and her colleagues have brought to the theater. My hope is that we will be able to, as Sheila would say, “put it on the map.”

Brenda, what were LA County’s goals, as communicated to the design team in 2014, for the renovation and expansion of the 1,200-seat, outdoor John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in the Cahuenga Pass? 

Brenda Levin: The county articulated specifically that the goal for the John Anson Ford renovation and expansion project was to enhance opportunities for both patrons and performers.

For performers, this meant facilities, including dressing rooms (both private and shared), restrooms, showers, and a green room—all amenities of any state-of-the-art performing arts venue. One of the biggest challenges for performers to date, prior to the renovation, was that there were not adequate support services. The stage was not compatible for both dance and music; the amphitheatre did not adequately contain the sound while repelling sound from the 101 Freeway; and there were no places to engage guests after performances.

For patrons, the goals were similar. There was a great desire to provide picnicking areas and other opportunities for patrons to linger pre-performance and, in the future, post-performance. Those opportunities had previously been very limited. The new terrace, along with the addition of a full-service kitchen, provides the ability to arrive early for a performance, to picnic, and to gather at intermission. These were very important goals for the project, in addition to decades’ worth of deferred maintenance that needed to be addressed throughout the facilities.

Olga, elaborate on the nature of the artistic performances that you hope to attract to the new Ford. 

Olga Garay-English: For the last 20 years or so, the theater has run a program called the Artists Partnership Series, with LA-based artists and LA-based presenters or promoters as the focus. One thing that has been so wonderful about this theater is that it has had a real dedication to serving the needs of artists who choose to live and work in Los Angeles.

I’m very committed to the idea that this is the people’s theater. It’s not my theater; it’s not the staff’s theater. It’s about making this marvelous venue available to everyone.

But to really ratchet it up, we needed to bring in more nationally and internationally recognized artists—and that’s exactly what we’ve done. In January, Supervisor Kuehl responded to my request to support this new vision with an $875,000 grant to the Ford Theatre Foundation, so that we could put together a series I curated called IGNITE @ the FORD! We’re launching the series with a gala performance by tap virtuoso Savion Glover on July 15.

I am committed to establishing vital institutional relationships that can expand the Ford Theatres’ horizon. Very soon after I started working here, I reached out to the LA Opera, the Music Center, the Skirball Center, and the Fountain Theatre, among others. We are going to be working with many local institutions like these, as well as the New York-based Apollo Theater and Lincoln Center Festival, which is one of the top three festivals in the United States. These partnerships give us credibility, they open the range of artists that we can aspire to host, and they diversify our audiences.

The fact that we were able to, in a very short period of time, attract these kinds of collaborations also resulted in our bringing additional financial resources to the table. So far, we have been able to raise more than $250,000 through our valued collaborators. So, instead of a ten-part $875,000 series, we are able to offer a 14-part series that is valued at more than $1,125,000. We were able to strategically build on the investment that Supervisor Kuehl made by joining forces with respected institutions locally and in New York City. Next year, we expect even more partnerships, and with institutions in other parts of the country. 

Brenda, what architectural and structural improvements to the venue—which first opened in 1931—have most enhanced the range of options for future performers?

Brenda Levin: As Olga mentioned, the theater is now a state-of-the-art performance venue. None of those technical capacities previously existed in the theater; they were cobbled together by a very creative technical team. But they were working without the benefit of the technical theatrical and audio-visual improvements that you would see in any major state-of-the-art performance venue, whether interior or exterior.

Of course, being an exterior venue makes it all the more challenging. We put together a design team composed of structural, electrical, and mechanical engineers and specialty consultants in the field of theater—acoustics, audio/visual, theatrical lighting, etc. The team we built was very specific to the needs of the Ford, to ensure that it provided the performers with a venue that supported their artistry.

One of the major features is a new two-level stage, made from Ipe wood, a Brazilian hardwood. The new stage is more forgiving than the original concrete surface, has stair access to the amphitheatre, and, unlike the original, is flat and centered on the house seats. There is also a new production booth with a very sophisticated 4K projection system, surround sound system, and theatrical lighting and lighting control system, all accessed by catwalks for the tech crew.

The Ford Theatres, for the first time in its 86-year history, has the capacity to be a competitor with any one of the great venues in Los Angeles—and, quite frankly, around the country. 

Olga, when you walk presenters, artists, or promoters through the theater now that it’s almost complete, what are their reactions? What are they most excited about?

Olga Garay-English: It’s been a deep pleasure to see people who have performed in the theater before, under much more rustic conditions, say things like, “Oh my god, a loading dock!” Even the capability to pull up a truck full of musical equipment or sets is light-years ahead of what used to be available here.

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When old venues are refurbished, a lot of attention is placed on the façade and what the audience experience is going to be. One of the things that made this an extraordinary project was that just as much attention was paid to what the artists’ experience would be. The sound and lighting equipment, and our state-of-the-art LED projector, have gotten a wonderful reception from the artists. The refurbishing project, which has taken multiple years to complete, goes beyond cosmetics.

One new element of the building is a performance and picnic area serviced by Crumble Catering Co. For the first time, we’ll have the ability to provide hot meals. We’re not going to demand that people buy their food here; we treasure the fact that people like to bring their own picnics and really make it an evening. We feel that that is part of the charm of the place. However, many people also appreciate the ease of being able to purchase gourmet meals at the site, and that is an added element that was made possible with this new iteration of the building.

All of this takes place under the stars. Every time I walk into the Ford, it just screams "California” to me. You get a feeling that you’re in a very special place on Earth. And what differentiates the Ford from other outdoor venues in Los Angeles is that, even though it’s a 1,200-seat theater, there’s really not a bad seat in the house. Wherever you are, you can have eye contact with the artists onstage.

That experience cannot be duplicated at the Greek Theater, which is 7,000 seats, or at the Hollywood Bowl, which is 18,000 seats. Those are wonderful, memorable venues, but you wind up watching the show from the big screens, versus being able to see into an artist’s eyes and recognize the vitality they bring to their work.

Brenda, how did the site of the Ford—nestled as it is in a canyon within a regional public park—impact the design of the new theater and its landscape? 

Brenda Levin: Certainly, what makes the Ford unique is the site. It is in direct opposition to the Hollywood Bowl across Cahuenga Boulevard, where the view for the patron is to a manmade, built shell—a very beautiful shell, but a manmade shell.

As Olga pointed out, the intimacy of the Ford really allows you to connect to the artist. But it also allows you to connect to the natural environment. When you’re there, you feel like you are in a park—and indeed the Ford is part of a 32-acre park—and because you are seated deep in a canyon, the experience is more than you would imagine was possible in the heart of Hollywood.

Mia Lehrer + Associates, landscape architects, seamlessly constructed the landscape to visually extend the stage up to the surrounding hills. It is designed as a generational landscape, blending into the grove of mature trees, and is comprised of an extensive palette of native Southern California and Mediterranean species.

That said, there were challenges to the site, as I expect there were in the theater’s initial construction. First and foremost, a lot of water flows off that hillside, and one of the deferred maintenances was the infiltration of water into the theater. We spent quite a bit of time solving that problem. There were some hillside stabilization issues as well, which have been resolved in this renovation.

But the real impact of the unique site is the opportunity to use lighting, sound, and projections to immerse patrons in the environment. The new sound wall at the back of the amphitheatre was designed with catwalks that provide access for the tech staff to employ all the technology that is built into the theater in the most creative way. The use of LED lighting that can be color-controlled, and the use of projections onto the building and the landscape, will add another dimension to the performance.

When you’re in the theater, you’re in the theater. You’re not going to be terribly conscious of the outside world. That’s a gift, I think, in so many ways—both to the performers and the patrons—to be able to have that level of focus and attention given to a creative effort.

Both Supervisor Kuehl and her predecessor, Zev Yaroslavsky, along with their fellow Board Supervisors, have been champions and immensely generous patrons of the Ford renovation. Are there opportunities for other patrons to support the Ford?

Olga Garay-English: We are very focused on diversifying the patron base and the sponsorship base of the theater. We’ve gotten corporate sponsorships from Comcast NBC Universal, Southern California Edison, Pernod Ricard, and more. Patrons can also attend our Grand Opening Gala, where we are offering VIP tickets for $500.

The gala, and a pre-performance celebration, will take place at the new picnic and performance terrace. It will be followed by the concert, and then a meet-and-greet with Glover and the other artists where you can enjoy desserts, coffee, and champagne. We’re also going to have Rufus Wainwright, a renowned Grammy-nominated musician, and Youssou N’Dour, a world-renowned Senegalese musician.

Furthermore, we have a Seat Naming Campaign. When you name a seat, you make it possible for communities throughout Los Angeles County to experience the Ford's culturally diverse dance, music, theatre, film and family events.

The Ford has traditionally been a very grassroots enterprise; it’s really been about LA artists. Corporate interest in the work has remained at a certain level for many years. We are trying to become a more sophisticated operation in terms of fundraising goals.

Now, we are looking at what this new iteration of the Ford Theatres will enable us to do in terms of additional fundraising. With these marvelous new performance and picnic areas, for example, we could offer a wonderful venue for board retreats, VIP celebrations, or book and recording launches.

Olga, what would you hope to see as the lede to any review of the new theater’s opening this summer?

Olga Garay-English: Come discover Los Angeles’s hidden treasure through new eyes.

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.